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Class Act: Game Changers

Armed with spreadsheets, data and plenty of empathy, Nancy Sykes and her fiercely dedicated team at Esplanade Gives Back offer critical help to the surrounding community.

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  • | 12:30 p.m. November 18, 2021
Yvonne Martin, Rob Commissar, Donna Downes and Nancy Sykes (Photo by Lori Sax )
Yvonne Martin, Rob Commissar, Donna Downes and Nancy Sykes (Photo by Lori Sax )
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Without the organizational skills of Nancy Sykes, Esplanade Gives Back might just be a discombobulated dream of most of the 1,250 households in the Lakewood Ranch community.

Instead, thanks to Sykes’ spreadsheets, data, decision trees and meetings with the community’s board and Lifestyle Group, it’s a concerted effort that has made a good deal of community impact in the past year. 

“It’s not about me,” Sykes says. “I’m just lucky enough to lead a small organization that gives back. We live in paradise, and we’re anxious to give back to others because we know how lucky we are.”

Esplanade Gives Back, of which Sykes is the leader, is the organized philanthropic arm of the Esplanade Golf and Country Club community, and even though it’s only been around for about a year, the group has already led a diaper drive and hurricane preparedness drive. During the height of the pandemic in 2020, it donated more than 900 meals to Lakewood Ranch Medical Center employees. The group even became the largest local contributor to Habitat for Humanity, thanks to an opportunistic endeavor in which Esplanade Gives Back members answered surveys en masse. Each product review consisted of three to five questions and, once completed, generated $2 for a Habitat for Humanity project that built a home for a local veteran. In total, Esplanade Gives Back members contributed $14,000 through the survey.

“We just have great neighbors,” Sykes says. “When you make the call and make it make sense, they respond. The whole point of this is you can’t do just random (things) here and there. It has to be organized because it’s about focus, organization and execution.”

Sykes is the one with the organization. There are other community philanthropy efforts in Esplanade — as she’s quick to say, there’s much more to Esplanade than what she does — including a golf tournament benefiting the local chapter of the Special Olympics. That, however, was just organized among that one street in the community, though there are other streets that organize similar events. Esplanade Gives Back is the organizer of the larger community efforts. 

“So that’s the kind of neighborhood we’re in,” Sykes says. “I just try to do some of the bigger things that get everyone together, right around the community.”

Sykes organizes a literal ton for Esplanade Gives Back. During its hurricane preparedness drive, the club brought in more than 2,000 pounds of canned food, flashlights, manual can openers, paper products and other items that people might not grab until it’s too late. She, the Esplanade board and the Lifestyle Group organize their schedule and generally focus on one interest quarterly.

Two of the keywords that Sykes and the strategy team keep in mind when choosing organizations to support are “important” and “impactful.” Esplanade Gives Back focuses specifically on Manatee County, and Sykes wants to focus efforts to make the strongest effect on the many needs in the area. She tries to coordinate with other local philanthropic organizations to make sure they’re not doubling up on efforts.  

“We get everybody’s priorities, and we think about what’s most important to our community and impactful to the broader community,” Sykes says. “We think about what we can get 2,000 people to get their heads around and then what can it do for the broader community.”

The idea of Esplanade Gives Back had been brewing for a while. There are more than 35 neighborhood organizations in the Esplanade community. The board of the Esplanade Lakewood Ranch community is at the top, followed by groups including the Lifestyle Group and, finally, subgroups, like Esplanade Gives Back. The Lifestyle Group had been organizing social events, including Friday Music on the Green and other get-togethers, and wanted to do something for the community around the neighborhood.

During the pandemic, that bubbling desire to help burst. Sykes says she feels lucky to have the life she and her husband have and wanted to give back in her community. When the pandemic started, she and her neighbors had the time and opportunity. The Lifestyle Group took the idea to the board and got started.

“Why not do something for others?” Sykes says.

Sykes, who describes herself as data- and planning-oriented, is a natural choice to head up this altruistic outfit. She is a mechanical engineer by education, worked with GE for 20 years and was a senior HR leader who led countless meetings throughout her career. Esplanade Gives Back needs her spreadsheets. She got involved with volunteerism through United Way and does readings at local schools.

“As I was growing up, my family had nothing, and we had lots of people that helped us, and I had people along the way who have always helped me, whether it be financial, mental or physical,” Sykes says. “I wouldn’t be where I am today if I didn’t have people helping and supporting me. If I’m not working now, I can do that for others.”

To finish out 2021, Esplanade Gives Back will do another round of lunches at the Lakewood Ranch Medical Center, this time with a Thanksgiving menu around the holiday.

Sykes is also planning a volunteer fair with representatives from dozens of Manatee County organizations that work with the arts, schools, veterans and a host of other interests, including Habitat for Humanity, United Way and Meals on Wheels Plus. The idea is that this will make it easy for attendees to choose who they want to support with their time. Sykes thinks it’s important that Esplanade Gives Back help facilitate even more community involvement. 

“I’m just lucky enough to be able to coordinate, but it’s all of our neighbors who make it work and make it happen,” Sykes says.


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